Saturday, December 26, 2020

Elves Part 1: Reconstructing a Fantasy Archetype

Picture by Yuliya Litvinova
I've now written three articles about some of the main races in my homebrew setting without ever having intentionally set out to make a series like that. One day I just wanted to compile a bunch of my weird notes on dwarves in one place and share them. Then with gnomes. Then with halflings. And even when it had occurred to me that I have a series on my hands, I still think I was never intending to write a post on elves, because...

Well, because elves don't need a lore post.

Like, gnomes and halflings both need work done if you want them to be interesting. Even sticking to the vanilla versions is still lesser than what you get with off-the-shelf elves. Dwarves have lots of lore but it's infamous for being cliché, so revisiting it and doing something fresh justifies itself. But elves? Elves get nothing but attention. They often have too much lore. Wasting more ink on them is an injustice and disservice to the other fantasy races. To other fantasy ideas. Elves are the most thoroughly fleshed-out and experimented with idea in nearly all fantasy fiction. Just look at the TV Tropes article. How the fuck do you get this much mileage out of one idea? How does D&D manage to always, inevitably have a million elven sub races in each edition even as they avoid that mistake with other races?

The thing is, we could try to have the conversation of "what is the elf, at its core?" Analyzing fantasy ideas often means reducing them to their most vital components, the thing that makes an elf an elf no matter what else you change. And when people have that conversation, they usually arrive at something like, "fancy, graceful humans with pointy ears and whatever other traits we culturally idealize (beauty, longevity, skill, knowledge, pale skin, starlight eyes, etc.)." If that doesn't do it for you, here's a way to avoid a debate: not everyone exactly agrees on what an elf is, but most people agree that David Bowie seemed to be more elf than human, which I would say is a solid rule of thumb to operate on.

But there is inevitably a conversation after that one. Because while most elves check off most items in that definition, they all have more going on. Even the original Norse elves or Tolkien's elves. So the next question is, "having now understood what elves fundamentally are, how do you expand on that to make them your own?" This is where the interesting conversations take place. Where you get cool and novel elves from.

Me? I want to have the next conversation. And I specifically want to ask, "what should we take away from Tolkien and early D&D's answers to the previous question? What did we take for granted as classic elf tropes that really do have some potency?" Hence, reconstructing the classic elf. Not exactly as it was before, but at least giving those classic tropes another look. Kiel Chenier has really creative and cool homebrew elves that are a perfect example of not the kind of thing I'm talking about today. No one would question that Warcraft's Night Elves are a fucking rad take on elves, as with the Elder Scrolls's bizarre elves and metal Dark Sun elves and so on. But none of those are classic elves, and most fantasy creators don't really consider just going with classic elves. But as long as we're trying our own hand at writing our own elves, I want to take a moment to explore this direction.

Understanding the Classic Elf

Another reason I felt justified in doing this is because, when I wrote my article on halflings, I ended up writing several pages just about the idea of halflings and the logic of halflings. It wasn't just lore, it was guidelines. I need to understand them. I've found that most of my players, while broadly familiar with some idea of "the classic elf" from fantasy fiction, don't actually understand elves. They would totally get that elves are supposed to be snobby spellcasters who are grossed out by dwarves and fight really elegantly with their leafy rapiers or whatever. But they have no idea how to act like elves or what expectations to have of elven NPCs, instead treating them like humans. I've never seen, like, an anime elf really seem to nail the "idea" of an elf, y'know? While our core definition of elven essentialism certainly covers the ground of "what should we expect of elven culture?" in that we should expect them to be pretty and perfect and "better" than humans (however you subjectively define that), I really think that's a shallow understanding. The same shallowness that was understanding halflings simply as "happy-go-lucky plucky farmer-types," which justified fleshing it out with all that business about the mindset of the medieval serf and whatnot. The Tolkien tropes and their family give our understanding more depth in a direction that's been taken for granted. So yeah, maybe elves do need a lore post.

Let's go through some additional common traits that form the second layer of the classic elf. After that, I'll give you the numbered list of traits for elves in my setting, just as I did with the other races.


Tolkien did immortality, but most stories are too scared to commit and instead just give 'em, like, 700 years or so. It's very rare that elves are ever thought of as true "contemporaries" to humans. So even if they don't have long lifespans, they'll at least have an ancient civilization. Everything that we associate with longevity gets hung onto elves: tradition and conservatism, vast collections of knowledge and artifacts, wisdom and prudence, lost empires with cool secrets, and so on. It's funny, because lots of fantasy settings also include dwarves and gnomes and whatnot that live for centuries, too. But they rarely get all the same "longevity" tropes. Maybe the reason it comes so naturally with elves is because we're channeling the childhood experience of having an adult tell you "no" and judging your brash decision making, as elves so often treat humans.

Their longevity was, arguably, their most important quality to Tolkien. That's what makes the elves the pseudo-protagonists of The Silmarillion. Mortality is a major theme of Middle-Earth, and the human envy of elven immortality is meant to be one of the great misunderstandings of mankind. That mortality is actually a gift from God, given to humans to designate them as his favorites. Cue thousands of pages of storytelling to help make that convincing.

Hand-in-hand with longevity is the trope of "the time of elves is fading into history, the time of humankind is upon us," and all that. This is a very, very old one. It's grounded in most Indo-European mythologies, but especially Celtic myths. It's a pretty simple analogue to the process of growing old and watching a new generation take over. How you respond to that transition says a lot about you. At least, that's the analogy that makes this trope resonate for most people. It's actually inspired by ancient imperialism, as conquerors would drive out and kill native populations and change culture over time. The stories of Celtic myth always frame this as how humans treated the fair folk, and then in turn it happened to the Celts themselves (but for real).

Takes on elves that go really far in this direction are unfortunately lacking. You know how Planescape: Torment explores the life of someone who can't die? And all that entails? Imagine that on a societal scale. It could be fascinating. It also could be impossible to imagine, since it's such an out-there concept. Otherwise, the most I typically see people do with "immortal elves" is give them an inevitable decline towards ennui and despair. Much like Tolkien's elves, they won't die, but... they'll probably slowly fade away. I think Burning Wheel even turned this into a mechanic if you play as an elf.

Norse Mythology Influence

This is, after all, where we get the word from. Elves were one of the primary inhabitants of one of the nine worlds of Yggdrasil, Alfheim ("Elf home"). In fact, the idea of "dark elves" comes from the same place. So what do we know about Norse elves? Well... not much beyond that. There's an excellent paragraph from the Wikipedia article that says a lot:

Evidence for elf beliefs in medieval Scandinavia outside Iceland is very sparse, but the Icelandic evidence is uniquely rich. For a long time, views about elves in Old Norse mythology were defined by Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, which talks about svartálfar, dökkálfar and ljósálfar ("black elves", "dark elves", and "light elves"). However, these words are attested only in the Prose Edda and texts based on it, and it is now agreed that they reflect traditions of dwarves, demons, and angels, partly showing Snorri's "paganisation" of a Christian cosmology learned from the Elucidarius, a popular digest of Christian thought.

Icelandic storytelling traditions are definitely helpful to constructing a more "historically grounded" idea of an elf, and indeed, the majority of people living in Iceland today still believe in elves. Or rather, they "won't outright deny their existence." So the traits drawn from Norse myth tend to be the "being really pale or outright white" part, the "hidden society" part, the "living in another plane of reality" part, and the "having a distinction between light elves and dark elves" part.

If you went further in this direction, you might push your elves to be more monster-like, and treated like spirits deserving of sacrifices. Digging into that Icelandic stuff would be fruitful. But it's very interesting that, despite originating in Norse myth, elves almost always draw a lot more from...

Celtic Mythology Influence

Such to the point that elves are often handed an entire cultural mythology to "own" for themselves. It's the biggest footprint the Celts have on modern culture, in fact. That our "elves" are usually just fictionalized versions of the people who lived in Ireland before other assholes showed up. How do the two get connected? Well, basically, even though elves originate in Norse culture, the Norse conception of them seems to match a lot of the themes and ideas of Celtic peoples. To simplify things greatly, the Celts mostly seemed to be nature-y animists, seen by their peers as mysterious people of the wilderness. I'll refer again to the old story of "we have come to these British Isles to conquer, so get lost Elves/Celts" as an important moment in both cultural history and real history.

But I want to make an effort to help spell out what "Celtic culture" even means, since it's treated as far more plastic than it probably ought to. We often conflate "Celtic mythology" (e.g. druids and vates and bards, Cú Chulainn, the Morrigan, the Dagda, the Aes Sidhe/Tuatha Dé Danann, etc.) with "fairy folklore" (e.g. pixies, leprechauns, fairy circles, changelings, iron weakness, Jenny Greenteeth, etc.), even though they really are two separate things. Celtic religion was an animist belief system that revered all parts of nature as having spirits that deserve man's respect, even as they submit to men's rise. Then, Christianity came along and softened a lot of this stuff up. Those spirits and characters are reinterpreted as the Celts' "gods" (the way the Greeks and Romans would have framed it kinda like how kami in Japanese Shinto are often translated as "gods"), and since there is only one God, they must now be re-reinterpreted as "fairy lords and ladies." All that fun stuff that follows is, essentially, agrarian folklore from medieval British people, descended from Anglo-Saxons rather than, like, Picts or something. If you got in a time machine and went to Pre-Roman Ireland or Britain and tried asking about "Boggarts" or "Redcaps" or "Will-o'-the-Wisps" then they'd have no idea what the fuck you were on about.

Why do we connect them? Well, partially because Christianity downgraded all Celtic religion to folklore, then allowed agrarian Brits to continue generating their own, new medieval folklore, and ideas get mixed. You could call "fairy folklore" the evolution of Celtic mythology, but not really. It's the evolution of watered-down Christianized Celtic mythology. Another reason is that Wicca, in a half-assed attempt to "reconstruct" some kind of authentic Celtic spirituality, also conflated these things without realizing the irony of purchasing into a cultural myth invented by medieval Christianity.* Lastly, the modern Celtic Revival made an effort to reclaim fairy folklore as "theirs," following the logic of "this is an evolution of Celtic culture," and... fuckit. For as absolutely fucked as the Celts were by history, this is a decently credible argument in conjunction with the rest of the movement. It's theirs.

So elves, something we know to be a crucial ingredient of the medieval British serf's mental landscape and social reality, are folded into fairy folklore, which is itself influenced enough by Celtic mythology that we just throw it all together in a stew. And then we add centaurs and satyrs and dryads from Classical mythology, too, because they have the same flavor. Delicious.

So when people take from the Celts, the main tropes drawn on are, "anything to do with fairies," "living in hills," "druids," "predecessors to mankind," "have a complicated relationship to humans (at best, tricksy and pranksters, and at worst, outright malicious and sadistic)," "forest people," "the Otherworld," "oh no we went to fairy land and a hundred years passed outside even though we were only here for an hour noooo," "rampant bisexuality," and so on. Oh, and by the way: their relationship to fairies and other "little men" is the reason canon D&D lore says elves are shorter than humans, on average. Just one more little Celtic influence on D&D elves.

When people take this influence way further, it tends to make elves look more and more metal. See, if elves are meant to be graceful and smooth and stuff... then they really aren't a great fit for what our best image of Ancient Celts was like. While people in Rome wore leather skirts and sandals, those guys in Ireland wore pants and grew huge mustaches. But in any case, you'll sometimes see elves being granted Celtic stuff like, "being wild guerrilla fighters who terrorize Julius Caesar full-time," lots of "war-spasming berserkers,"** "the Wild Hunt with ghost riders and a retinue of badass hunting hounds and a bevy of sparrows and other metal shit," "the soul is stored in the head, so we must decapitate our enemies and hang their heads around our horses' necks to truly defeat them," "big Stonehenge-style standing stone monuments," "human sacrifices burned alive in Wicker Men," and so on. The bad part is when Celtic language gets incorporated too much, resulting in words that are either unpronounceable ("Claimh Solais") or words whose pronunciations you will guess wrong ("geas" or "sidhe" or even "Tuatha"). The Hellboy comics do a really good job of threading the needle and making perfect "elves as Fair Folk."


Yes, there's more to talk about here. Even when the Celtic stuff gets left behind, the connection to nature almost invariably remains. Animal, plant, and astronomy motifs abound. Elves able to talk to birds or riding atop elk as cavalry. See, while the Romans saw the Celts as being "uncivilized" for not living in conventional, walled, paved cities and whatnot, the divide between "we of civilization and they of the wilderness" remained an important dichotomy throughout all of European history to follow. So in the medieval period and Renaissance, even if you conjure up the idea of the "hidden Elf King's enchanted city," it's still hidden within the woods. More importantly, the idea of wild men of the forests ("woodwose") got associated with elves. And when Christians came to America, well guess what they found? A whole lot of people who had a lot in common with the Celts. Obviously, not all indigenous peoples, but certainly the ones who had the biggest cultural impact on the colonizers. The Wampanoag and the Powhatan and the Plains Indians and such. Many of them also shamanistic animists who are a lot more in touch with nature than the colonizers.

Maybe "connection to nature" is such a common trait that it ought to be folded into the basic elf definition, but the real reason I'm elaborating on it is because taking it really really far is something more distinctive. When you see people go hard in this direction, you get wood elves with the "feral" idea dialed up to 11. Maybe they'll still be a little graceful (the "noble savage" trope hasn't gone away) but oftentimes it's just absolute animalistic, teeth-gnashing instinct. They're almost always cannibals. Elves done like Roman fauns or the Sumerian Enkidu or the Bible's Nebuchadnezzar. People just covered in hair, maybe even with goat ears and some kind of horns on their head. Sometimes you even see them with wooden skin.


This is the first of the more abstract traits that you find with classic elves. It almost always informs the visual even if it doesn't come through in the attitude. Funnily enough, in many ways I've noticed that it's one of the first traits thrown out by most attempts to break from tradition (like the "wild elves" I just described). I mentioned in the "core definition" that elves almost always possess traits that are considered ideal to whomever the audience is at the time. So here, I'm gunna describe what those typically are.

Start with the visual stuff: Slim and angular and with glass-cutting cheekbones. Visually, it all just complements together. Helps the long, smooth, silky hair work better, too. This is the reason canon D&D lore should say elves are taller than humans, on average. And plenty of androgyny, too. Elf men are categorically twinks. But the devil is in the details. They usually conform quite specifically to modern beauty standards. So while long hair has almost always been "in" in Western culture, the specific hairstyle is definitely going to look like something from the 21st century and not like a long-haired beauty from the 11th century. But even then, it still isn't exactly "whatever the audience finds hot." Because while elves are almost always beautiful, they're rarely sexual. Sort of. It depends. The ones more inspired by Celtic stuff and fairies and whatnot might be, and you do indeed get some medieval accounts of elf seduction/rape (see "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"), but it's the sort of role you now normally see handed over to vampires, instead. It's hard to imagine Galadriel as a creature capable of having sex. So outside of your favorite big-tiddied anime elf horndoggery, elves actually tend to look like modern day fashion models. Something that almost nobody actually would call their sexual ideal. But having close to zero body fat helps reinforce the androgyny.

Oh, and they're white. They're always white. There's a reason why "fair" came to mean both pretty and pale. Draw an elf-of-color and people will complain that it isn't appropriate. Because modern beauty standards dictate that black women are incapable of being graceful. Sigh.

As a side note, while I probably will not myself break from the tradition of beautiful elves, I do really like seeing elves that are just horrible little goblin-like wretches. But when it comes to breaking the "graceful" trait, it's more often the intangible stuff:

Speed, skill, and finely acute sensory perception. The kinds of things which lead to elves having bows and rapiers and dual-wielding and whatnot. But also being really logical (think Vulcans from Star Trek). It helps with the superiority complex over humans, as they can invoke the ancient false-dichotomy of "you are too emotional" as a contrast. One of the more annoying tropes that I would gladly see die. They also usually get to be the iconic "gish" option (martial and spellcaster), since elves have that beautiful balance and superiority. Elves are also often given lots of miscellaneous tertiary elements that are perceived as fitting the "graceful" trait: they speak some kind of Romance language, usually French (because speaking Gaelic or something is the opposite of graceful), they drink tea, they play stringed instruments like harps, they sing, their armor has lots of tiny, intricate patterns worked in with gold filigree and stuff, etc.

Tolkien injected them with this trait because he was a devout Catholic, and thought of elves as being "humans, if they didn't have original sin." So literally graceful, in the Christian sense. But even without that, we can look at the fairy folklore concept of glamour as being informative here. See, the modern conception of "glamour" comes from an old folk belief that fairies and witches and other magical things use subtle magic to cast the illusion of beauty and allure. This is how some iterations of elves have both their cake and eat it: actually hideous, but perceived as enchantingly beautiful. And the enchantment often extends beyond the visual, of course.

So this idea of beauty, rather than being sexual, is more often linked to the beauty of art. And thus, elves get associated with artists and musicians and poets and storytellers and whatnot. And when you're associated with art, so too comes the association with dreams and other imaginative forces.

When you see takes on elves go really far in this direction, they tend to play up the "otherworldly" aspect, so that an elf becomes hauntingly, mind-breakingly beautiful. They become uncanny. It helps make them seem more alien, which in some ways is good for D&D... but it also makes them harder to play as. I once heard someone say, "Elves are people that you can hear and see but not touch or smell. They are the way some people look to other people. But not the way anyone ever feels about themself from inside their own body."


This one is definitely more modern, since medieval people were more likely to think of themselves as the fancy ones and the elves as the stinky ones. But it's nowadays almost ubiquitous to see elves as an analogy for the aristocracy, and oftentimes fixated on it themselves. And it's not merely about elves having more money and power than others. It's the culture of wealth. There's an obsession with rules and hierarchies and decor and symbolism and sophistication and stratification and 100% of it is artificial. Somehow everything is a ritual or a tradition. Again, this tends to complement some of the other classic elf traits: aristocrats are also white and graceful and have never worked a day in their lives and project glamour (in the more modern sense). I've heard it said that high elves have all the good qualities we associate with aristocrats (education, taste, discipline, class, manners, respect, etc.) and dark elves have all the bad qualities we associate with aristocrats (elitism, prejudice, exploitation, selfishness, gossip, indifference to or outright participation in evil, etc.). Well, except for stupidity. Some rich people can be very, very dumb, but that definitely isn't the type of rich person a dark elf is.

One of the limitations of "aristocracy" as a classic elf trope is that it heavily overlaps with vampire tradition, especially since they both tend to draw from the same period of influence in their idea of wealth: Victorian England. Honestly, I oftentimes feel some friction between the role of vampires and the role of elves in a shared fantasy world, and occasionally find myself inclined to only include one or the other.

When you see takes on elves go really for with this, you see a lot of mimicry of Elizabethan or Victorian England. Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is the archetype. The dueling-obsessed culture of the American Antebellum South is also another fantasy direction to take it... but also is better used for vampires. It's funny, because the "aristocrat elf" is seemingly a perfect example of a "lawful" society, and Tolkien's high elves are probably the reason why elves were categorized as lawful for so long. But another classic elf trope that kinda directly conflicts with this ended up growing more in popularity...


Nowadays, your off-the-shelf classic elf is typically characterized as "chaotic good." Partly this is to balance them against the dwarves' "lawful good" role, but it really is borne from emergent themes in the other traits discussed. Go really far with nature and Celtic stuff and you get the "savage elf," which is decidedly chaotic. Go far with the fairy stuff and you get elves pulling pranks on humans and fucking with them and using illusions and lies and enchantments to sow chaos. Go in a particular direction with grace and you get dreams and imagination and the creative passion we associate with art. Cross that with Celtic culture and you get a lot of sexual and gender liberalism. Then you just get a general culture of egalitarianism you rarely find in medieval fantasy settings. And most audiences think of progressive social norms as a challenge to tradition (a form of chaos), even though an incredibly conservative culture is totally capable of having multiracial pansexual polyamory be the norm. Because no matter how a culture views race, sex, gender, or whatever else, they can always find some group to be intolerant towards. Probably non-elves.

But yeah, "chaos" in the "unrestricted, free-love, hippie" way + "Robin Hood rebellious-ness" get mixed into elves a lot.

Visually, this is often emphasized by making elves look just a little more bananas. Rainbow colors, like pink skin and green hair and golden eyes and whatever else. Wild hair and tattoo-looking birthmarks shaped like stars and moons, surreal architecture, and so on. Thematically, it has always made intuitive sense to me that the elven Otherworld (the "Feywild" in D&D) ought to be like Alice's Wonderland. The absolute, pure chaos and zaniness of it is probably the extreme you could take this trait, but it also helps to make elven culture seem alien and inscrutable to humans. It's still tricky to expect a player to be able to assume that psychology in play, but it's a lot more do-able than "inscrutable alien".

So what makes the "Classic Elf" combination good?

So you noticed that I made an effort to point out a lot of ways that people either reject one or more of these traits, or they single one out and go sprinting in that direction. These are two main routes people take to come up with many of the coolest and most interesting elves you find in fantasy fiction, from Warhammer and Artemis Fowl to The Spiderwick Chronicles and Dragon Age.

But the classic elf which tries to embody all these traits simultaneously inevitably finds a lot of dissonance. They don't all reconcile easily. But to me, that's what makes the classic elf interesting. Exploring the weird disconnect between these traits is, to me, the essence of the elf. Being able to see it all together is how you understand them. As mentioned, a lot of the Celtic/fairy folklore traits seem at odds with "grace," but when you combine them you get stuff like Oberon and Titania.

Trying to reconcile aristocracy with nature is a fascinating contradiction as well. To suggest that somehow the behavior of the wealthy, with all their pageantry and etiquette and posturing, is somehow consonant with nature rather than the exact opposite. Like it's somehow natural to be dainty and pale and obsessed with shiny stuff. That contradiction of insisting upon a harmony with nature gives a sinister and dishonest impression. Perhaps it's because elves truly are sinister and misleading, or perhaps because they genuinely can reconcile these things and humans are incapable of understanding how that could be, feeding into the alien-ness and inter-species mistrust.

And remember the contradiction of the aristocracy with chaos? Well, Alice in Wonderland isn't just zaniness. It's at least partly a satire of the absurdity of high society. Part of what makes it so weird is that the inhabitants of Wonderland are obsessed with rules. They clearly think of themselves as incredibly lawful, even if the randomness and illogical nature of their behaviors comes across as chaotic to humans. Plus, it also takes place underground/in the woods.

Are elves aloof and chaste in that Victorian way or are they passionate and sexually liberated like we imagine the Celts? You might think of an immortal being as inevitably growing dispassionate or completely hedonistic, arguably. The contrasts compound but that's what I love. Elves that are 100% Celtic warriors or 100% fancy rich people playing polo are cool and all, but not as cool as the strange combination of the two.

One brilliant way the "classic elf" has been reconstructed is in the PS3 game Dragon's Crown. Oddly enough, one of the best articulations on this I've ever seen was from an unboxing video by a deceptively well-spoken Australian dwarf. Trust me, the Bard will convince you. And if you play the game, the small selection of abilities and upgrades available to the elf is, like, the perfect package of ingredients across the spectrum "classic elf" traits.

Having now gotten my brain juices out, the next article will actually be a real lore post about elves in my setting of Underworld. I wanted to explain some of my thought process first, but it got elaborate enough to warrant its own article. For anyone who plays at my table and wants to read everything there is to know about being an elf, that's what the next post is for.


*If you're curious, Druidism and Neo-Paganism are similar attempts at reviving Celtic religion that are both more authentic and way cooler. I wish I could give Wicca credit for its role in decolonizing spirituality and being such a big part of 1970s feminism, but, like... some things really are just cringe. Modern-day witchcraft is doing a way better job of that.

**Yes, I know berserkers were a Norse thing. But Cú Chulainn is really really similar and so lots of people conflate them.

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